Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice, came to Lexington yesterday and spoke to some suits at the University of Kentucky — surprisingly, not a lot of students in attendance but rather alums, lawyers and hobnobbers (like myself).
Thomas was funny and open in that way people who spend much of their time addressing crowds generally are — excelling in the sort of practiced spontaneity that makes false modesty, thoughtfulness, and good-natured ribbing seem genuine.
When thanked during his introduction for taking time out of his schedule to enlighten us while the Court is embroiled in “extensive arguments” about health care, Justice Thomas rolled his eyes exaggeratedly — as if exasperated by the mere memory of the pure hell he was forced to endure earlier in the week.
President of the University, Eli Capilouto (a/k/a, the Half-a-Million Dollar Man) gave Clarence a present. It was a t-shirt commemorating the UK basketball team’s national championship. The crowd cheered, Thomas looked unenthused, feigning graciousness, and the t-shirt appeared at least two sizes too small for the mighty Justice.
Speaking of that recent Kentucky victory, Clarence quipped, “Maybe in this current environment we could redistribute some of those 8 championships.”
The crowd laughed and perhaps that’s why, about half an hour later, the Judge decided to trot the same joke out again, suggesting in this current environment we should think about “redistributing the talent” on Kentucky’s basketball team to lesser ones.
You get it? It’s funny because the President of the United States is a communist.
Toward the end of his speech, Thomas lamented with great shows of sincerity the current national dialogue, saying there were too many ad hominem attacks and so forth. He insisted he was a “meat and potatoes” guy, which I suppose was meant as saying he just likes the basics and just wants to know the facts rather than that he’s at risk of a coronary, and as such he doesn’t like ideology or bluster.
No one laughed at that, but Thomas went on undeterred.
He said that “there used to be a time in this country when people spoke in a serious, respectable way.”
It’s unclear when that time was, however. Perhaps Thomas was confusing a past when a priveldged few held the reigns of national discourse and kept their off-color barbs to themselves in smoke filled backrooms and private clubs while parading as distinguished men of great honor in public life. Or maybe he meant some time before language developed and no one could understand that a particular serious of grunts were, in fact, a rather cutting description of some other cromagnon’s mother.
At one point, Clarence was asked about college life and how he had been nicknamed “Coose.” Clarence said he got the name from his basketball buddies because he dribbled like NBA great Bob Cousy (both attended Holy Cross). Clarence said that sometimes people still call him “Coose” but he doesn’t know why. It was a deadpan delivery and the audience didn’t even chuckle, deadpanning right back, one can only assume.
Clarence ended his evening by not taking any questions from the audience and awkwardly walking off stage alone as everyone stood around trying to get out of Memorial Hall through the front doors.
But not before he imparted upon us the wisdom and necessity of the civil society.
“We need institutions,” the Justice told us as if someone might disagree. “If we don’t have them, what do we do?”
It’s a fine point. The Supreme Court is an insitution. So’s Congress. So is Medicare. And maybe, some day, Obamacare will be, too. We need institutions, we need government, because without it… we’re left at the whim and fancy of corporate marauders who couldn’t care less about our lives so long as they make money off us before we die.
[You can read Jennifer Hewlitt's more comprehensive but less entertaining review of the night here.]